Do we still live in the America Sanatayana described? An American’s instinct, Santayana said, “is to think well of everybody, and to wish everybody well, but in a spirit of rough comradeship, expecting every man to stand on his own legs and to be helpful in his turn. When he has given his neighbour a chance he thinks he has done enough for him; but he feels it is an absolute duty to do that. It will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.” Tocqueville, in his famous paragraphs on Democratic Despotism, showed how the hammering would proceed. It was left to the later twentieth century to forge the instruments and the policies that prescribed their use.
But already in the early part of the last century Santayana discerned other, contrasting currents in American culture. Mornings come in Autumn as well as Spring. At the beginning of “The Moral Background,” the opening chapter of Character and Opinion, he evokes the fragile, evanescent, and barren beauty of an Indian summer. In the middle of the nineteenth century, he writes,
New England had an Indian summer of the mind; and an agreeable reflective literature showed how brilliant that russet and yellow season could be. There were poets, historians, orators, preachers, most of whom had studied foreign literatures and had travelled; they demurely kept up with the times; they were universal humanists. But it was all a harvest of leaves; these worthies had an expurgated and barren conception of life; theirs was the purity of sweet old age.
What follows is a quiet tour de force of intellectual portraiture, wry and dispassionately affectionate.
Well, partly affectionate. It is also partly admonitory. Santayana wrote Character and Opinion in England in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, not exactly an allegro moment. Casting his glance not only at America but also at the civilization of which it was the latest outcrop and heir, Santayana speculated that “Civilisation is perhaps approaching one of those long winters that overtake it from time to time. A flood of barbarism from below may soon level all the fair works of our Christian ancestors, as another flood two thousand years ago levelled those of the ancients. Romantic Christendom — picturesque, passionate, unhappy episode — may be coming to an end.”
The jury is still out on that prognostication, but it is worth noting that Santayana’s assessment of the American temper did not require the displacement of war to wax somber. Something of the sere and russet quality he diagnosed in 1918 was already part of what he called, in 1911, “the genteel tradition,” one of the most mellifluous phrases ever to have been enlisted in the armory of rhetorical diminishment. That enlistment, it is worth noting, represents a curious semantic shift. To judge from the dictionary, “genteel” is largely a flattering adjective. “Refined in manner, polite”: nothing wrong with that. “Free from vulgarity or rudeness”: OK there, too. “Elegantly fashionable or stylish in manner or appearance”: who could object? Only the last definition in my dictionary — “Marked by affected and somewhat prudish refinement” — would give most of us pause.
And yet “the genteel tradition,” a lecture title that matured into an all-purpose intellectual indictment (and wore itself out in the process), is no commendation. We have Santayana to thank for that: or maybe we should thank the many who came after him and gleefully seized upon the phrase to decry whatever they thought vulgar, stuffy, philistine, or behind-the-times. But it is worth noting that, although Santayana speaks of “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” the tradition he invokes is neither peculiarly philosophical nor distinctively American. The “genteel tradition” is the dominant tradition of establishment opinion, whatever it may happen to be at a given time. Thus Santayana speaks of the genteel tradition in Europe that was “handed down since Socrates.” Surely that yawning historical vista puts a crimp in the criticism the phrase is meant to imply. In his famous essay — and, twenty years later in “The Genteel Tradition at Bay” — Santayana provides an anatomy of received opinion as it then operated in American culture. It is part of what he meant when he said (and said more than once) that “America is a young country with an old mentality.” Commercially, in practical matters, America was vibrant, adventurous, “masculine.” In matters of culture she was cautious, “feminine,” “not high-and-dry, but slightly becalmed.”